The Big Idea: Rose Fox and Daniel José Older
Posted on May 13, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 32 Comments
When editors Rose Fox and Daniel José Older started out to create their anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, they did so with a mission: To offer stories with more than the “usual suspects” of fantasy characters and tropes — to give space to stories and people outside of the expected. Here’s how they went about doing it, and how they went about getting the means to make the anthology happen.
ROSE FOX AND DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER:
How do you transform a longstanding vacancy into an opportunity? How do you take an empty, unfriendly space, air it out, and make it welcoming? These are the challenges we faced when we set out to edit Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History.
The vacancy, of course, exists in the hallowed halls of fiction—specifically historical and speculative fiction. Here we find one dominant narrative, that same singular narrative that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us about: the story of the anointed white heterosexual cisgender man saving the world. We’re over it. We’ve seen it countless times. It’s boring. And what good is a solitary thread to depict a world that’s a vast, complex, multicolored quilt?
Where one story reigns supreme, thousands and thousands of others languish untold. This is not accidental, though it’s also not always conscious. Marginalization of people and stories doesn’t come out of thin air. It’s created by a thousand decisions on the part of writers, agents, editors, publishers, librarians, and booksellers:
- “I don’t want to write marginalized characters because I worry about getting it wrong.”
- “An egalitarian culture wouldn’t be realistic.”
- “I invited submissions from authors who were already notable in the field, because their names will help sell the anthology.”
- “We’re looking for books that we know will do well in the current marketplace.”
- “Readers won’t pick up a book with a character like that on the cover.”
- “I have no idea how to promote this story. It’s really cool, but who would read it?”
- “Boys don’t read as much as girls do, so we need to encourage them with more books about boys doing boy things.”
Collectively, over a period of decades, these individual decisions steamroll non-dominant voices right off the map.
Meanwhile, our author friends have been saying very different things:
- “My story was rejected because the editor ‘couldn’t relate’ to the main character.”
- “I built a story around something that happened to me, and was told that things like that don’t happen anymore.”
- “I wanted to submit to that magazine until they published a story that was full of stereotypes about my culture.”
- “My professor told me that people like me don’t write SF/F.”
- “My fantasy novel, set in a world that’s completely different from ours, was shelved under ‘African-American Literature’ just because I’m Black.”
We decided it was time—really, long past time—to take part in the fight against the dominant narrative and make space for the truths that have gone untold. We wanted to tell the truth about our histories, not the stories that make it into textbooks, and we wanted to decolonize speculative fiction. That was the big idea that became Long Hidden.
With the expert guidance and support of our publishers, Bart Leib and Kay Holt at Crossed Genres, we set out to create an atmosphere of bravery with precision and gentleness, free from deception. Our submission guidelines (http://longhidden.com/submissions/) asked for care and empathy, because we knew we would be seeing stories of violence and sorrow as well as bravery and triumph. We couldn’t pretend away the pain that oppression has caused throughout history. We weren’t interested in narrative of the privileged savior and we said so; we also asked authors to approach the concept of revenge with subtlety and caution, knowing that the truth of history is more complex than the tables being turned. We asked for stories of friendship and family and community, because in hard times those personal connections are both threatened and vital. And we encouraged speculative elements that incorporated real-world religion, superstition, and folklore, because the supernatural has its dominant narratives too.
We invited everyone to contribute, not just big names, because we know how hard it is for even tremendously talented authors to break in. We were intentional about reaching out into communities that don’t usually see calls for submissions for speculative fiction anthologies. We extended our call out far beyond the traditional boundaries of mainstream SF/F. We approached writers who had never published before and writers who had never written speculative fiction before. We explicitly requested and welcomed stories from women, writers of color, queer and trans* writers, and disabled writers, knowing that it takes a clear invitation to overcome the general feeling in the industry that such authors and their stories are unwelcome. We offered SFWA pro rates to honor the hard work it takes to write a story of the painful past, and asked the wider community of readers to fund our project through Kickstarter so we could afford to pay our authors and artists something close to what they were worth.
The response was tremendous. Submissions and pledges poured in. In a few days, the Long Hidden Kickstarter met its goal, and soon after we’d doubled it. By the end, we’d shot far past the initial goal and beyond what any of us had thought possible. People gathered en masse to declare that this was a space that needed to be opened in the closed ranks of both speculative and historical fiction.
Twenty-seven stories emerged from the many, many amazing ones we’d been sent. They were stories that collectively held a vast range of voices, scopes, characters, and unspoken truths. They were from authors around the world. They were heartbreaking and hilarious and true in the way all great fiction is. They were challenging. And most of all, they were in conversation with one another, despite depicting many different people, places, and eras. We enlisted artists with diverse backgrounds and styles to give them the illustrations they deserved.
Each story challenged our assumptions, privileges, stereotypes, doubts, fears, and uncertainties. As we worked with the authors and artists and each other, we were profoundly moved and changed by these tales of struggle, survival, triumph, and pain.
The “long hidden” stories have been here all along, as have the voices that tell them, but the industry hasn’t been listening. We’re thrilled that social media and crowdfunding have opened up new avenues for untold narratives to get their due, and we look forward to a great many more emerging into the light. Long Hidden isn’t the beginning, or the end.
Long Hidden: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Createspace
Read a story excerpt with commentary by contributor Sunny Moraine. Visit the book’s Web site. Follow editor Rose Fox on Twitter. Follow editor Daniel José Older on Twitter.
I was just listening to the Diversity in SF panel episode on the SF Signal podcast, where a bunch of authors tackle similar concerns–about getting things right, about writing marginalized characters and doing it with care. It’s a tricky thing, and I think a lot of authors don’t want to get it wrong.
Authors getting it wrong is as old as Herodotus. :)
Science fiction is usually a place where, according to the Larry Niven Ringworld story, people mock you for getting orbital mechanics wrong. Fantasy’s most famous author created entire linguistic structures and fragments of language, a cohesive mythology, and mapped out a world.
But at the same time, F/SF authors are *afraid* of the hard work it takes to get marginalized cultures right?
I don’t agree. What I think is happening is that you’re seeing the entitled being told that toys they enjoyed playing with are being played with incorrectly, and to people who grew up using those things, they’re not toys, and that they look stupid for thinking people in that culture act like a painfully constructed dumbed down stereotype.
Of course, it *is* hard work to get cultures right. It’s also hard work to get orbital mechanics write, write a compelling, accurate fight scene between knights on horseback, figure out what a compelling alien looks and acts like, create a map of a fantasy world, and so on. It’s hard work getting those things right.
None of them are impossible. The only real difference is, orbital mechanics isn’t a group of people who’ve provably been deliberately excluded from genre fiction. When you get it wrong, you write a sequel in which Ringworld has attitude jets. When you get a marginalized culture wrong, not much happens because the group your marginalizing is already been pushed away from your genre.
In response to Josh Jasper, I’d like to say the fear “I don’t want to write marginalized characters because I worry about getting it wrong.” is quite real. It’s not a good enough reason to avoid doing it, of course — it just means doing more work. And the writer may STILL get things wrong, and probably will.
I disagree that “when you get a marginalized culture wrong, not much happens because the group you’re marginalizing is already being pushed away from your genre.” <– this, to me is a description of very much happening.
One, speculative fiction SHOULD BE for everyone to write, read, and enjoy. If a minority of perspectives is all that is offered, the literature is the poorer for it AND it only serves to reinforce the assumptions of that minority. I think that has the effect of saying to many, many people: "You don't matter." That's re-marginalizing a lot of people, and it's not right.
Two, getting things wrong due to lack of interest or effort, whether that be laws of physics, created geography, or real-world people, cultures, beliefs and identities, is just poor writing.
“The only real difference is, orbital mechanics isn’t a group of people who’ve provably been deliberately excluded from genre fiction.”
I think there’s another difference: writing involving orbital mechanics can, more or less be checked for “accuracy” and said to be “right” or “wrong”. As many of the debates over culture and difference in SF/F show, one can easily have a situation in which a characterization is held to be “right” by some and oh so very “wrong” by others–where all of the above are normally like-minded on those issues. Under even the best circumstances, it’s all too easy to have an element of a fictional work be interpreted differently by different parties. The painstaking care that’s gone into a key paragraph fleshing out a character will strike some as perfect, and others as insufficient, and others as trying too hard.
Please realize that I’m not saying *trying* shouldn’t be considered a requirement–it is–nor that there aren’t *truly wrong* ways to go about such things–there are. But I honestly cannot imagine a work that approaches these difficult issues that will receive universal acclaim. Someone’s *always* going to be rubbed the wrong way, and in an echo chamber the complaints of a few can be amplified very quickly.
I guess I’d better add a slight postscript to my earlier comment: I know that some of what’s done “wrong” with regard to marginalized people in fiction amounts to “I didn’t even bother reading the Wikipedia article about Culture X”. My primary concern, after having participated in a number of debates about difference in SF/F, is that even when an account is factually correct, it’s so very easy for some to have no issue whatsoever, while others find the account “shallow” or “privileged”–possibly valid critiques, but sometimes vague or ill-supported, and nigh impossible to effectively respond to or to guard against in the first place.
All writers get things wrong. It’s never an excuse to not try putting those things in, A book whose diversity does not match the way the world really is fails on a level only people in the majority don’t notice, so it’s a safe failure. It’s not answerable to anyone who’s going to have much of an impact on you because they’ve been safely marginalized out of the genre already. Publishers, by and large, will publish a book that botches a marginalized culture for laughs and won’t publish a book that gets it right because of the reasons Rose mentions.
anonydude is focusing on threats of people who “find the account “shallow” or “privileged”–possibly valid critiques, but sometimes vague or ill-supported, and nigh impossible to effectively respond to or to guard against in the first place.
Dude, if you’re going to build these scenarios, point at one that really happened. As far as I can tell, you’re making it out to be some valid reason for white people to fear writing non-white (and we can extend that to gender, religion, social class and religion too) people. If that’s the case, disagree. And in the main because you’re not presenting any real evidence of the claim you’re making.
Josh, I think the evidence for this is all over the place in the thousands of posts that comprise RaceFail ’09. It’s my belief that anyone who spent significant time either reading about or debating in RF would have come across cases like those I’m mentioning. I would rather concede that I’m not presenting specific evidence than re-read any of that material at this point, though. Furthermore, I don’t think what I’m saying really needs to rely on evidence, because my contention isn’t “omg people are so mean to white dude who are trying ever so hard”; it was to contest the main thing that struck me about your post, which is the notion that there’s a real similarity between writing about race and writing about gravity. I’d agree that writing about a specific (real) culture requires similar research & effort, and that it’s possible to be factually wrong about real-world cultures. Things get complicated when you are writing about invented races, species, or other groups. Criticisms of the form “this character of a minority fantasy species is an implicitly racist caricature of African-Americans because the fantasy species had been enslaved in the past” are very difficult to inoculate one’s fiction against. Parallels to our own world are perilous, and connections can be drawn in ways the author never expected or intended. Sometimes those criticisms will be apt, but my point isn’t “making those criticisms is bad”, it’s that “preventing problems like that is not just a matter of care and research”.
Criticisms of the form “this character of a minority fantasy species is an implicitly racist caricature of African-Americans because the fantasy species had been enslaved in the past” are very difficult to inoculate one’s fiction against.
Hence the statement that “you will get it wrong. Next time, you’ll do better.”
If it’s a valid criticism, you’ll learn something. If it’s invalid, you’ll learn something. No reason not to try.
I’m female. I see male authors not bothering to write realistic female characters all the time. I watch TV shows and movies where 80% of the people in crowd scenes are male.
(In real life, I belong to a profession that’s 80% female, and yet the majority of the leadership is male. It’s not unusual to see sexist jokes incorporated into PowerPoints in conference sessions. I once attended a professional conference where EVERY SINGLE PERSON who got up to speak during a Q&A was male. Except me. But I digress.)
Believe me, when I see an author work at portraying believable and diverse women (not all skinny white 20-year-olds with fantastic racks), using women as something other than set dressing or props whose horrible deaths can motivate the hero, and making some of the limo drivers, cops, etc. female–I NOTICE. I may still carp if the portrayal rings false, but it’s better than having 51% of the population disappeared. (Thanks to Our Host for his efforts in this direction.)
I’ll be purchasing and reading this anthology not because it matches my politics (which, actually, it does) but because my first thought when reading the Big Idea was, “Yea! New stories!”
The cover art is cool – my first clue that a book isn’t more of the same-old, same-old. Congrats to the editors for their hard word and focus!
A lot of my students, many of whom love SF/F, can’t get to a library often enough due to budget cuts that close branches too often, or parents who won’t support their book habit. So I’ll be buying two copies of this. One for me to own and read, and one for my classroom.
I’m now two stories in, and Long Hidden is seriously good. I don’t often purchase Big Idea features, but couldn’t resist the theme of this anthology–and I haven’t been this pleased with an impulse buy in quite some time.
This looks really good. I just ordered my copy on Amazon, and discovered it’s part of the Kindle Matchbook program, which means while I have to wait two days for my paper copy to be delivered, I can start reading it on my kindle today!
Yay! This is not just a Big Idea, but a Seriously Good Idea as well. My best to everyone involved with this project!
I am a shallow person, and you had me at that gorgeous cover.
The cover is by the AMAAAAAZING Julie Dillon.
I was torn because I wanted the illustrations but really prefer to read on Kindle. I was thrilled to discover I can have it both ways, thanks to Kindle Matchbook!
The anthology looks cool and went on my must-acquire list.
Other thoughts on the subject seem to be growing exponentially so I’ll either put them in my own blog or mutter them into my pillow.
Stray thought, though: worrying about offending people is very often a dumb thing to do. Much better to strive to please a hypothetical audience that is diverse, complex, and interesting than to try to evade the slings and arrows of a bunch of equally hypothetical professionally-offended gotcha-gnomes. And if you don’t know a diverse audience well enough to write to/for it, are you sure you know enough to be writing at all?
The only thing that could make this anthology better is if Older himself had contributed a story. I loved Salsa Nocturna and would love to visit with those characters again. Looking forward to this book.
Leesa, you may be happy to know that Daniel is under contract for novels set in the Salsa Nocturna universe!
Thank you so much for highlighting this book. Can’t wait to buy my copy and read.
Thanks for the update!
Mr. Johnston — How old are your students? I would be happy to contribute some books with diverse characters to your classroom library, because books are awesome. Perhaps this can be facilitated in some way? (In particular, I am on a mission to get Kristin Cashore’s Seven Kingdoms trilogy into the hands of every teenage girl in the US, because I think it’s so damn valuable.)
Writers worrying about getting it wrong can hedge their bets by diversifying their beta-reading panels. Mine formed over shared interests, in-person and on-line, and it’s ethnically, culturally, and educationally diverse by design. I would never have dared to write a second-generation African-American superheroine without help and consult from my BrainSister who’s a Black Comics Geek (yes, they exist and are numerous), a cell-biology-based vampire story with a first-gen Asian-American protagonist without encouragement from my Consulting Microbiologist, and the list goes on. They’re friends and fellow storytellers, and they don’t hesitate to tell me when I get it wrong. On the other hand, I have learned that I’ve gotten it right a staggering number of times because I read LOTS of African-American, Native American, GLBT, etc-etc-etc literature, and not just SF/F. My reading list looks diverse not because I’m “checking boxes” but because those stories speak to me. In some notable cases, they saved my life. (I reread Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony alongside Andrei Bely’s Petersburg every few years to remind myself that the world looks tip-tilted because it really is. And Octavia Butler’s Parables novels remain my personal benchmark for the truly scary.)
Isn’t the answer to “I’m afraid to get (culture) wrong” simply to :let voices from that culture tell their story themselves?
That’s what this anthology is doing and that seems to be the best answer.
Not to say that trying to get other cultures right isn’t good to do, but letting the marginalized get heard directly is better.
Absolutely! Buy and review and otherwise promote work like this anthology, because these are authors who need to be heard. There is something spine-tinglingly wonderful about hearing a voice you’ve never heard before, telling the truth from an angle you never considered.
(And thanks to Mr. Scalzi for providing a platform for this important work.)
Dear Josh & Anonydude,
Permit me to riff off of your Larry Niven observation, because I can make some pertinent points without touching politically controversial matters (for a time).
I was one of the principal players in the Ringworld meta-story. To begin with, Larry wasn’t mocked for getting the orbital mechanics wrong. Orbital mechanics are nonintuitive, and some of them in this case were extremely nonintuitive. He should’ve done a bit more homework, but no one mocked him for that.
What they did mock him for was having the earth spinning the wrong way! (For those who haven’t read Ringworld, at the very beginning the protagonist is hopping around the planet to keep up with New Year’s celebrations… And he’s going in the wrong direction!)
In that same vein, subtle or complicated social errors will not get you mocked… although they will get you criticized. Really dumb-ass ones will get you mocked and deservedly so.
Second point: Larry was well into writing the sequel when Dan Alderson and I both quantified just how wrong the orbital mechanics were (a nontrivial calculation). It would require Larry to go back and significantly revise the background and some of what he’d already written. How did Larry react? Was he hostile? Defensive? Did he try to cop out with “it’s just a story?” No, he acknowledged that that was a flaw he wasn’t willing to live with, went and did the rework to fix this, and then actually thanked us for putting him on the right track.
That’s how you maintain a good reputation as an author. You don’t stamp your feet like a little brat when someone criticizes what you’ve done. You are gracious about it.
That will turn out to have nothing to do with factual accuracy or objectivity. Because those matter less than you think, to a readership.
Dude (can I call you dude? [Grin]), you wrote “My primary concern … [is] … possibly valid critiques, but sometimes vague or ill-supported, and nigh impossible to effectively respond to or to guard against in the first place.”
That’s the authorly equivalent of this:
Trust me, that concern is a serious fail. It will happen. It will happen a lot. Some readers will be wrong. Not just “I think they’re” wrong but “oh my God what kind of bad drugs were they on” wrong.
I’ve got 40 years experience writing umpteen hundred nonfiction articles in a field that is not politically or socially controversial and amenable to fairly easy testing (photographic techniques). For the last half of that, I’ve ghosted the inter-webs reading what people say about my articles. Oh my God, the horror, the horror. Not just misunderstandings and misinterpretations, people asserting that I said black when I said white, people arguing about whether I said the horse was black or white (and never, not once, trying to contact me, to get it from the ummm, ass’s mouth), people arguing about whether I said the horse was black or white when the first sentence of the article says “what color are zebras?”… trust me, every way that a reader can get it wrong they will get it wrong.
What do you do? You ignore it. Because if you can’t, you are as temperamentally unsuited to being an author as a standup comedian who can’t live with hecklers.
It will happen. The way you deal with it is you graciously acknowledge the readers’ comments, tell them you will give them serious thought, and move on. how much serious thought you give them is between you and your conscience and your sensibilities.
And ( … back to controversy …) That is how Racefail failed. Bear’s initial instincts were good. Then some of her friends (and who needs enemies with friends like those?) decided to turn it into a game of “let’s you and him fight” and she got sucked right through the black hole.
What do you do as an author?
You do your best. You take your lumps, some of which will be undeserved. You never, ever, ever get into a pissing match with your readers.
You will lose.
You can be factually right as rain. You will still lose, in every way that matters.
pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
— Ctein’s Online Gallery http://ctein.com
— Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com
My thanks to those replies directed my way. I appreciate your thoughtful responses to my possibly slightly paranoid or wrongheaded concerns–and Ctein, thanks for the Niven story!
RaceFail most certainly was a black hole, or at least a rabbit hole. It was perhaps the most extreme statements made during those fateful days that really form the core of my worries; but the responses here remind me that by and large the RF interlocutors were not foaming at the mouth. I suppose one needs to take some responsibility for whom one chooses to engage with.
“Readers won’t pick up a book with a character like that on the cover.”
Ugh. Meaning readers = a very narrow demographic indeed.
I love that cover. I haven’t read any of The Big Idea posts before, because I’ve never been much into SF and have lost what interest I have in fantasy (well, apart from talking detective cats).
But this cover is wonderful and I’m off to see if Kobo sell the book.
Purchased! Got the hard copy from CreateSpace, so it will take a while to arrive, but I wanted to have the physical thing on my shelf (and not give my money to Amazon).
Um, slight disagreement.
Here we find one dominant narrative, that same singular narrative that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us about: the story of the anointed white heterosexual cisgender man saving the world. We’re over it. We’ve seen it countless times. It’s boring.
Some of us are more interested in What, Where, When, Why, and especially How.
If What is something other than saving the world, that’s nice too, of course.
On the topic of the actual book being discussed in this post:
OMG, that cover is fan-beautiful-tastic. I think I want to buy this book on the strength of the cover alone.